- Ethnicity: Chinese-Korean
- Nationality: American
- Real Name: Nora Lum
- Date of Birth: 2 June 1988
- Height: 5’2 / 1.55 m
- Age: 31 years old
- Weight: 121 lb / 55 kg
Who is Awkwafina?
Awkwafina, known for her signature low, raspy voice, first started as a Youtube rapper who gained almost instantaneous fame from her first video in 2012 which went viral, “My Vag”. The video now has over 5.6 million views and counting!
She then went on to transform into a movie and TV star after her breakout role in Crazy Rich Asians. With the reason for her rocket to fame being her raunchy, flashy image, Awkwafina seemed like the next Melissa McCarthy.
But she proved that she was a versatile actor when she graduated from her usual comic roles to her dramatic role as Billi in The Farewell. With this role, she not only showed her acting range, she actually made history. In 2020, Awkwafina became the first Asian-American to win Best Actress at the 77th Annual Golden Globes for her role in The Farewell.
How did Awkwafina get her name and what does Awkwafina mean?
In line with her lighthearted personality, Awkwafina came up with this moniker merely because she thought that it was hilarious to modify product names like Neutrogena. She had originally spelled it as Aquafina when she was 15. And as everyone started calling her that, she eventually embraced it.
When Awakwafina filmed the “My Vag” video, Dunn made her change the spelling so that she wouldn’t be sued by Pepsi. According to her in a Galore interview, “He spelled it in the most extra way ever”.
When The Guardian asked in an interview which name she identified with, she divulged that she still saw herself as Nora Lum. She’s mostly Nora, but when she’s happy and confident, she’s Awkwafina. Awkwafina is a mask of sorts for her, and represents a personality separate from Nora.
Despite this, when The New York Times interviewed her, she expressed that she will continue using the stage name Awkwafina for it means a lot to her to “see her name on a chair back or on a call sheet”.
Awkwafina Early Childhood and Education
Awkwafina was born Nora Lum in Flushing, Queens, in 1988 to a South Korean immigrant mother and a Chinese-American father. When she was just four years old, her mother died from pulmonary hypertension. Her paternal grandmother then helped her father raise her.
Her mother’s death had a huge influence on her turn to comedy. She had initially used it as a defense mechanism to cope with people’s awkwardness around her. Her humor was greatly influenced by her grandmother, who especially loved dirty jokes.
Awkwafina has been deeply passionate about underground rap music ever since she was 13. When she turned 15, she started producing beats and songs on her Macbook. She also pursued her love of music academically at Fiorello H. LaGuardia High School. She trained in classical and jazz music and played the trumpet.
But it was in this famous school (Timothée Chalamet, Sarah Paulson, Jennifer Aniston, and Nicki Minaj are all fellow alumni!) when she realized that she lacked true talent in playing the trumpet. Her music dreams were promptly dashed. So when she went to college, she switched discipline and majored in journalism and women’s studies at The State University of New York at Albany.
Awkwafina Early Career
After graduating from college in 2011, she worked in several odd jobs from bartending in a bodega to serving in a sushi restaurant to pay the rent. Thereafter she became a publicity assistant for publisher Rodale Books. Awkwafina had believed that she was already working for the best job she would ever have. She was afraid to lose her job. Yet deep down inside, she longed for a career that gave her purpose.
Then she became friends with music video director Court Dunn, who convinced her to film a music video “incognito”. He had told her if she wore oversized shades, nobody would recognize her. She decided to take the risk and shoot the video as a creative fulfillment.
Awkwafina titled it ‘My Vag’, as a feminist song opposing Mickey Avalon’s 2006 ‘My Dick’. She wrote the song in just 15 minutes and shot the video on her birthday. Shortly after, she was fired.
Convinced no one would hire her with such a video, she decided that it must be her calling instead. She started producing more videos while her ‘My Vag’ video climbed rapidly in popularity.
She caught the attention of producers soon after. Awkwafina became a host for late-night web talk show, Tawk, interviewing small-time celebrities. In 2013, she starred in MTV’s Girl Code and hosted the series’ spin-off talk show, Girl Code Live.
She also appeared in the 2016 documentary, Bad Rap, which explored the struggles of Asian-American rappers. The documentary, now out on Netflix, raised her profile in the Asian-American hip hop scene.
Awkwafina did not train professionally for acting, though she had a childhood dream of being on TV. She stumbled into acting when comedian-producer Seth Rogen saw her video ‘My Vag’ and thought that she was perfect for his movie, Neighbors 2: Sorority Rising.
After this movie, she came across many other opportunities, which mostly portrayed Asian stereotypes. She rejected them all for she held fast to her stance as a representation of Asian-Americans. Awkwafina chose only shows that did not perpetuate racist notions of Asian-Americans.
She eventually took up the role of Rebecca in the indie comedy, Dude, now available on Netflix. The independent film opened the doors for a mainstream movie that propelled her star status, Ocean’s 8.
The writer and director of Dude, Olivia Milch, went on to co-write the female-driven heist comedy Ocean’s 8 with director Gary Ross. Ross was so enamored by Awkwafina’s acting in Dude that he immediately offered her a role in Ocean’s 8.
Shortly after, she took up the role of Peik Lin in Crazy Rich Asians. She didn’t know it then, but Crazy Rich Asians director Jon M. Chu had already decided that no one else would be a better romantic comedy sidekick than Awkwafina before she was even cast.
2018 turned out to be Awkwafina’s year, as she starred in blockbusters like Ocean’s 8 and Crazy Rich Asians. Her natural comedic skills as Peik Lin in Crazy Rich Asians immediately won the hearts of audience worldwide. Here are some of the movies that brought her international acclaim.
Constance in Ocean’s 8 (2018)
Ocean’s 8, the female-led spin-off of the Ocean’s trilogy, starred Hollywood magnates like Cate Blanchett, Rihanna, Sandra Bullock, Sarah Paulson, Anne Hathaway, Helena Bonham Carter, and Mindy Kaling.
As Constance, the pickpocket, Awkwafina literally stole the scenes with her energetic personality. She also trained with a sleight-of-hand coach and studied street hustlers to perfect her pickpocket performance.
Despite the star-studded ensemble, Ocean’s 8 failed to impress the audience. Most critics noted the strong acting and well fleshed-out characters but sniffed at the weak plot that failed to hold the film together.
Peik Lin in Crazy Rich Asians (2018)
Crazy Rich Asians is an American romantic comedy based on a global bestseller featuring an all-Asian cast. It is a modern Asian Cinderella story where a Chinese-American woman, Rachel Chu, meets her boyfriend’s (obviously) crazy rich family for the first time in Singapore.
The film, which grossed almost $240 million worldwide, was a game-changer in the Hollywood market, paving the way for more exclusivity in movies.
Awakwafina was cast as Peik Lin Goh, the best friend of Constance Wu’s character, Rachel Chu. She brought the comedy to life in Crazy Rich Asians with her sharp improvisation.
Peik Lin is the quirky, loud-mouthed friend with a heart of gold whom every girl needs in her life. The rich best friend who is more excited than you in giving you a snazzy makeover, makes you laugh hysterically with her crazy antics, and tells you the harsh truth as it is.
Given the freedom to improvise her lines, Awkwafina stole every scene she was in. This included one of the most side-splitting scenes which involved the only F-word in the movie!
Billi in The Farewell (2019)
Awkwafina shone as the lead actress in The Farewell, a semi-autobiographical family drama by writer-director Lulu Wang. She played a Chinese-American, Billi, who had to battle between her Asian-American identity and her Chinese cultural roots when she found out that her beloved grandmother was dying.
It was a break from her usual comic characters, and it was actually a role Awkwafina actively sought. She had empathized strongly with the protagonist as she is also very close to her grandmother.
Despite around half of the movie being filmed in Mandarin, the movie failed to gain traction in China. The Mainland Chinese had felt the story and even Awkwafina’s looks, to be too ordinary. But back in America, The Farewell actually went on to beat Avengers: Endgame per theatre earnings at $88,916 per theater.
Awkwafina’s subtle but heartrending performance also won her a Golden Globe nomination and win in the musical or comedy category, making her the first-ever Asian-American woman to win lead actress at 2020 Golden Globe.
Ming in Jumanji: The Next Level (2019)
Awkwafina joined Jumanji: The Next Level, the sequel of 2017’s Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle, as a new video game avatar, Ming. Starring alongside the all-star cast comprising of Dwayne Johnson, Jack Black, Kevin Hart, Karen Gillan, and Nick Jonas, Awkwafina’s addition added a surprising twist to the plot.
If you love family-friendly action-comedy, you’d enjoy this movie. While most sequels tend to lose most of the first film’s charm, this sequel brought Jumanji to the next level indeed. Besides Awkwafina’s brilliant prowess of her comic chops, the rest of the cast is equally, if not more, hilarious.
Jumanji: The Next Level is an uproarious rollercoaster adventure. It is an absolutely entertaining comedy that will have you on the edge of your seats at times and rolling off your seat as you double up in laughter the next.
Awkwafina TV Shows
From hosting to acting, Awkwafina’s done it all on TV. Before her rise to movie stardom, Awkwafina hosted talk shows like Tawk and Girl Code Live, and acted in several TV shows. And even after she made it big in theatres, she returned to TV in Awkwafina is Nora From Queens in 2018.
Awkwafina is Nora From Queens is a sitcom that aired in Comedy Central in January 2020 and is the highest-rated premiere since 2017. Awkwafina starred as an alter ego version of herself, Nora Lin, in the semi-autobiographical scripted comedy.
This comedy generally garnered raving reviews for its screwball humor and its fresh perspective on Asian American identity. Critics lavished praises on Awkwafina and Lori Tan Chinn, who acted as her grandmother.
After her unprecedented success with ‘My Vag’ on Youtube, she then recorded a few more hits, such as “Green Tea“ which featured comedian Margaret Cho. In 2014, Awkwafina released her debut album Yellow Ranger, which was filled with funny rap songs. She stated in Vanity Fair’s interview, “Music has always been a passion, whereas comedy is part of my fiber, so to mix those two was very natural.”
In 2018, in spite of her busy schedule, she released a five-song EP In Sina We Trust. Awkwafina’s songs continue to embody her bawdy spirit in the expletive-filled lyrics while honoring her Asian identity with a myriad of cultural references like ramen noodles and Nissan. Her grandmother also appeared in her official music video, “Pockiez“.
Awakwafina said in an interview with The Ringer, while music is her life, she feels that her music is not for the masses. But she will continue making her own style of music for she would never want to give up her creative direction and control.
Awkwafina Upcoming Projects
Awkwafina has many film projects coming up, which include an action role in Marvel’s Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings. She will also lend her voice to not one, but two Disney movies! You will get to hear her as Scuttle the seagull in Disney’s live-action The Little Mermaid. And in Disney’s new animation Raya and the Last Dragon, Awkwafina voices the Last Dragon, Sisu.
Awkwafina’s cultural appropriation of Black aesthetics from her usage of “blaccent” in Crazy Rich Asians to her New Yorker gangster persona in the viral video “My Vag” brought her fame, but also invited much controversy. As she slowly sheds this persona with her recent roles, it has led to even more criticism.
Even as she is accused of appropriating black culture for her own benefit, she stands firm on her aspiration to be a role model for all Asian-Americans. She was inspired by Margaret Cho and Lucy Liu as her Asian-American role models, and hopes to a similar inspiration for the next generation.
Awkwafina Fun Facts
- Before settling on the name Aquafina, she considered Kimchi-jjigae (Korean kimchi stew).
- She loves clam chowder.
- Her carry-ons always contain a facial spritz.
- She loves cats.
- From 2006 to 2008, she studied Mandarin at the Beijing Language and Culture University in Beijing.
- She wrote a travel book called Awakwafina’s NYC.
- Awkwafina has a bad nut allergy, but macadamias are the only nuts that she’s not allergic to.
- She still has a group chat with the rest of the Ocean’s 8 female cast.
- When she was seven, her grandmother placed tiger bells on her tongue to stop her from telling vulgar jokes.